Leyla Atsak: We will take back the rights that trustees usurped

Sociologist Leyla Atsak was elected mayor of Çaldıran in 2019, but the defeated AKP candidate moved to the town hall. Now another local election is coming up. Atsak is determined to regain the town.

With 53 percent of the vote, Leyla Atsak, who ran for the HDP, emerged as the municipal winner in Çaldıran (Ebex) in March 2019. But the sociologist was unable to take on the position of co-mayor of the district town in the northeast of Van province. The High Electoral Council (YSK) refused to recognize her.

The losing candidate from the ruling AKP party became mayor. The same scenario also played out in five other municipalities that were won by the HDP. What was strange about the decision was not only that the YSK had not expressed any concerns about her in advance and even certified that nothing stood in the way of her application. Candidates from other parties who had also been dismissed by decree or even had a criminal record remained unscathed.

In August 2019, Ankara finally launched a total blow against Kurdish local politics: dozens of democratically elected HDP mayors were deposed and arrested on vaguely worded terror charges. In their place, receivers moved into the town halls, which were subsequently not only transformed into garrisons, but also centers of corruption and theft.

Local elections in Turkey are coming up again on 31 March. Leyla Atsak, who now belongs to the DEM Party, which emerged from the HDP, helped organize the primaries in two districts of Van.

In this ANF interview, the 30-year-old talked about her impressions: “Anyone who believes that the population would see no point in casting their vote in the election because the trustee regime could assert itself again is mistaken. The people here don't allow themselves to be demoralized, on the contrary. They are defending their political will.”

Although you emerged as the winner of the local elections in Çaldiran in 2019, the defeated AKP candidate moved into the town hall. Looking back, what can you say about the developments at that time?

The will of the people was ignored and I was denied the opportunity to carry out my duties as mayor. Like today, we also went into primaries back then. I was selected as a candidate co-mayor because I received the most votes in the first round. A few years earlier, I worked as a civil servant until I was dismissed by decree, in 2017. Nevertheless, the YSK did not exclude me and other applicants with a similar entry in their CV. But as soon as we won the election, things turned 180 degrees. And that is exactly where the violation of the law lies. In a unique democratic process, we organized a preliminary vote, were elected as candidates and came out on top in the local elections. First the state gave its consent, only to later classify us as criminals and refuse to recognize the election. The city had already come under the yoke of trustees as a result of the coup against local politics after the 2014 election. After two and a half years of trustees’ regime, the people liberated themselves through our election. But the mayor, who is basically nothing more than a trustee, does not represent their political will.

How does the population view this situation?

The citizens see this as injustice, as oppression. The people voted for our party to get rid of the trustee. We said that we would work in the communities to serve the people. The reprisals and threats have not stopped then or now.

How do people react to this?

In Van Province, and especially in a district like Çaldiran, the population is openly told: ‘We do not recognize you, your votes are null and void.’ Çaldiran is my birthplace and I am constantly in contact with the people here. But I also see very clearly that, despite all the adversities, this situation does not lead to demoralization or an attitude in which people think that there is no point in voting because the compulsory administration is being maintained anyway. On the contrary, they see this process as part of a historical struggle, as a renewed confrontation with the reality of the state. I don't say this as a slogan, the election results confirm this. In 2019, we finally won municipalities that had been ruled by receivers for years. The people expressed their will at the ballot boxes. We may not have exercised our office, but our citizens have always stood by us.

How did work continue after the AKP candidate was appointed mayor?

I served on the provincial executive committee of our party. From the beginning, I didn't see this situation as personal. My dismissal was just as unlawful as the appointment of a losing candidate in my place, despite my election as mayor. These allegations do not affect me as an individual in any way. If this had been the case, I would not have remained in our party. This is a people's fight. It is the history of the land we stand on. The resistance and passion of the people gave me hope. ‘It’s all over’ – we don’t know sentences like that. Such words will never be heard from our mouths.

How did your denied recognition affect civil society life in Çaldiran?

The politician who moved to the town hall in my place was the candidate of the ruling AKP. He also comes from the city. For him it was completely normal to sit in the chair and govern despite losing the election. With appointed mayors – or trustees - it is not possible to see sensitivity towards women, nature, people and animals. Not even in the slightest. Awareness of empathy would consequently have led to not taking on the assigned task as mayor. To this day, he hears from the public that he is wrongly in office. Çaldiran was already a very neglected border town. The only news that came out of the city was about people seeking protection being arrested or about the “witch hunt” against HDP members. The population is paralyzed by pervasive repression, especially at times when civil society is needed most. In addition, there is a severe economic crisis that is putting additional strain on the population.

What did the trustee do during this time?

He turned the town hall into a family business. The number of his relatives who were not brought into the city administration is likely to be in the single digits. The man does not serve the people, but his private interests. This also includes distributing photos showing him with former Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.

You were responsible for the DEM party's primaries. What was the atmosphere like?

There was a lot of work and a lot of enthusiasm. I was responsible for the primaries in Çaldiran and in Bêraqdar near Erzurum. Primary elections were held for the first time in Bêraqdar. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the people at the polling station. The primaries lasted a whole day. People waited until midnight for the results. The people themselves were reflected in the result. All the delegates from back then came and even more. Nobody was missing. Organizing the administration together always gives people hope. This is building a democratic future.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are running in the elections with the DEM party. Our voters immediately accepted this name. They are also aware that there will be manipulated voter rolls again. The government simply doesn't want to give up its trustee administration. This is a new era for us. The method of fake voter rolls has now spread to the entire Serhad region. In concrete terms, this means that once again no democratic elections will be held. There will be fraud and vote theft again, but that will not stop us and will not break our will.